October 30, 2008

Human Rights Suit Against Chevron May Raise Interesting Punitive Damages Issues

Much has been written in the press about Bowoto v. Chevron, which began trial this week in San Francisco federal court. (See, e.g., L.A. Times, Reuters, Huffington Post.) In a nutshell, the plaintiffs allege that Chevron committed human rights violations in a 1998 incident on an oil platform off the coast of Nigeria. The plaintiffs are seeking recover under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a little-used law that dates back to 1789. They say they were staging a peaceful protest on the platform when they were assaulted by Nigerian military forces who were paid, fed, and housed by Chevron. Chevron contends that the protest was anything but peaceful, and that the plaintiffs threatened the safety of its workers.

Of relevance to this blog, the plaintiffs' case includes a claim for punitive damages. As noted in a prior post, interesting constitutional questions arise when a plaintiff seeks punitive damages in a U.S. court based on actions that took place in another country. Earlier this year, similar issues were raised in a Los Angeles case involving a group of Nicaraguan farm works who sued Dole and others, complaining about the use of the agricultural chemical DBCP on banana farms in Nicaragua nearly 30 years ago. The plaintiffs obtained $2.5 million in punitive damages, but the trial judge tossed out the award, apparently in response to Dole's argument that the punitive damages were improper because they were based on conduct that was lawful in the jurisdiction where it occurred.